After a 15-9 loss to the New York Yankees on April 21, it didn't seem like anyone in the Red Sox bullpen was capable of performing their job. That wasn't reality, but it's absolutely how things felt, based on the first few weeks of the season. The bullpen had allowed over 40 percent of inherited runners to score. Mark Melancon, expected to be a reliable setup man, was in Triple-A Pawtucket working on his mechanics. Alfredo Aceves, so great just a year before, was having trouble as the team's new closer, whether in save situations or not.
Since then, though, things have settled down. The pen has likely outperformed their actual abilities in the last two weeks, but it's served to help balance out the earlier, unrealistic awfulness. In the last 13 games, dating back to April 23, the pen has limited opponents to a line of .188/263/.266, and allowed eight of 34 inherited runners to score, with four of those coming in one game. That was also likely more on manager Bobby Valentine, who once again brought Justin Thomas into a situation in which he was overmatched, than it was on the pen.
Valentine's favorite mistake is in Triple-A now, though, and it's not the only change. Junichi Tazawa was called up briefly to help out the bullpen, and thew six scoreless innings with nary a walk issued. Alfredo Aceves has looked much more like the 2011 version of himself in his last six appearances, throwing strikes and keeping opponents off the bases. Scott Atchison has continued to pitch in a way that's made the 29 teams who didn't claim him last time he was on waivers upset about their inaction, and now has a 3.1 K/BB and 2.50 ERA in his last 50 innings with the Red Sox. Clayton Mortensen, acquired in the Marco Scutaro deal, shifted to the first base side of the rubber, and has now struck out 21 of the 63 batters he's faced this year, including 11 in 6-1/3 innings in the majors.
The bullpen is still below-average, but it looks much better than it did after April 21. They are now striking out hitters at a rate just a tick above-average, after being a full strikeout below. They have 2.7 times as many whiffs as walks. They have given up 13 homers, but all but two of those were through April 21. It's not perfect, but the bullpen is far less to blame for the team's issues than the rotation, at this point.
Even with the absence of expected closer Andrew Bailey and the mechanics issues of Melancon, things are coming together for the pen. They likely won't always be as good as they have been the last two weeks, but no one expects them to -- they just need to be a lot better than they were to begin the year.
The thing is, this isn't the bullpen the Red Sox will see the rest of the year. That's because Melancon has reached a point where we won't know if his issues are behind him until he faces another major-league lineup. He's punched out 14 hitters in 7-1/3 innings in Pawtucket, and hasn't allowed a walk nor a homer in that stretch. Today marks day 20 of his demotion, meaning it's the last opportunity for the Red Sox to recall him without burning his last option. It's also the day after a weekend series in which Red Sox relievers threw over 25 innings in relief of the starters, thanks to injury, ineffectiveness, and two extra innings contests.
Add to that Tazawa, who was a victim of roster flexibility when he was sent down last week as the only pitcher in the bullpen with an option, and Boston has two relievers they could call up right now, if only they had the room. The problem is that Mortensen is now in Tazawa's position of being the only reliever with an option in the pen, and not only has he not pitched like someone who should be sent back down, but he is only taking up the one roster spot. You would still end up with two relievers sitting in Pawtucket instead of the majors, two who arguably belong on the roster given their performances to this point.
Never mind when the team gets to the point where room needs to be made for Daisuke Matsuzaka, whose rehab ends in the middle of this month. Or Alex Wilson, who converted to relief to fast-track his way to the majors. Or Bailey, who won't be out forever.
The Red Sox are going to need to move pitchers without options, but there isn't much in the way of dead weight now that Thomas is in Pawtucket and Michael Bowden is in Chicago. Bowden's path is actually the direction Boston will likely end up taking, as they have arms to deal should a team come asking. Take the Angels, (thanks Chris Hatfield for pointing them out) who were already struggling in the bullpen, but on Sunday lost both Scott Downs and LaTroy Hawkins to injury. Boston might not get a significant return for, just to throw names out there, Matt Albers or Andrew Miller, but if the receiving team is desperate enough, Boston should be able to get something, even if a PTBNL or some cash is in order to make it happen, as was the case with Bowden.
The options appear to be to trade some relievers to teams who don't have this kind of roster logjam, designate them in order to send them to the minors until the next time they are needed, or stand pat with the bullpen as is. Making a trade seems to be the only realistic route here, as, even if you have no particular fondness for someone like Albers, he's shown an ability to get major-league hitters out, and has an better-than-average ERA in his nearly 80 innings in Boston. That isn't going to just be tossed aside so Tazawa can give it a shot, not without receiving something in return.
Teams will pay when they think a reliever is what they need, though. Bowden is just one recent example. The Rockies gave up Chris Balcom-Miller for Manny Delcarmen when Delcarmen was far less intriguing than any of the arms who Boston might deal now. Balcom-Miller isn't a top prospect by any means, but he could be a quality reliever in Boston's future; the Angels, or whoever, might be willing to part with someone like that in the present day, in order to stabilize the now.
A move might not come today, as Alex Speier reported earlier. But more than one transaction is going to have to happen soon, given the sheer number of pitchers involved.